A Marketing Controversy – à la française

The controversy raised in France by the market launch of a hijab by the sports clothing company Décathlon offers a wealth of insight and learning for all. Prof. Cedomir Nestorovic, ESSEC Business School, Asia-Pacific, explores.

First published in French in La Tribune on 28th February, 2019. With kind acknowledgements.

The whole world is watching on at the twists and turns in the Decathlon hijab saga, and not without a feeling of surprise and incomprehension at the political passions that the event has raised in France. In other countries, notably Asiatic where the pragmatic rules over the ideological, the fact that a private company can launch a product that satisfies a demand hardly poses a problem – be it a hijab, a Buddhist monk’s kashaya, or even a rosary. As long as the product isn’t forbidden, it is the market, and solely the market that judges – and its consumers the jury at this trial.

Nevertheless, the French situation is particular and it is not the first time that the political argument wins over the economic or commercial. When the fast-food chain Quick launched halal-certified restaurants in France in 2010, there was the same uproar in passions although the chain of restaurants held their ground. When Burger King bought up Quick, it was decided to keep more than 50 halal restaurants under the Quick brand name. It is still the case today.

Two arguments

Decathlon has offered two arguments justifying the commercialisation of its hijab: the fact that the brand already distributes its sporting hijab in Morocco, and the fact that there is a demand for this product in France. Let’s take the second argument first – the existence of a market. It is right to say that Islamic fashion is generally showing rapid growth. If we refer to the Global Islamic Economy Report published yearly in Dubai, this trend, all products combined, (luxury, fast-fashion, sports, etc.), represents a global market worth USD 270 billion and could climb to USD 361 bn by 2023. These are impressive figures and no fashion segment wants to lose out on this potential market.

Moreover, luxury brands such as Dolce et Gabbana or Saint-Laurent intend to co-exist with specialised brands such as Haute Hijab or Verona to offer hijabs or abayas. “Fast fashion” is also present with Zara and H&M, as well as sports brands like Nike. In fact, it is possible to buy sports hijabs in France – either in specialised stores or online. As such, Decathlon’s offer is nothing new, nor indeed odd. Nevertheless, the French market seems to be small as sales of branded hijabs have failed to take off, begging the question: just how truly big is this potential market in France?

A delicate subject from a political point of view

The first argument is interesting because it is based on the fact that if a company commercialises a product in one country, it can do it in another. But this is not true in every case. French banks commercialise Islamic products in certain Muslim countries but not in France; Coca-Cola commercialises its certified-halal drinks in South-East Asia, but not in France; Ferrero commercialises halal Nutella in many Muslim countries but not in France. As such, it is not because you commercialise a hajib in Morocco that it will necessarily be commercialized in France.

On the other side of the coin, it is not because you haven’t commercialised a product yet that it’s forbidden to do so in the future. It all boils down to a question of sensitivity and judgement and it may be that the subject is touchy from a political point of view and that whatever the response from Decathlon – be it maintain or remove the product – the damage has been done. The brand has been swept away in a political maelstrom from which it will not emerge unharmed – except if it considers any publicity to be good publicity, and that the brand’s renown will come out of it even stronger.

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